We now look as far as history allows into the lives and doings of three largely forgotten men (and their associates), to tell a story of strange doctrine, misplaced loyalty, and exasperated concern.
In 1881, Bishop Orson F. Whitney was called on a mission to England, where his assignment was to preach the gospel as a proselyting missionary for several months, and then move into the main mission office in Liverpool, where he would become the sub-editor of the Millennial Star. In this capacity he would take over for the departing sub-editor, Charles W. Stayner. Unbeknownst to most in his day and ours, Charles Stayner was a self-proclaimed prophet and seer, who evidently had a very magnetic personality, enabling him to persuade Bishop/Elder Whitney, and also many of the other missionaries serving there, that he was a prophet of God that would someday lead the Church.
The below diary entries and historical sources unfold as much as I know of Stayner’s (and his disciples) beliefs and actions in life. Bishop Whitney was the most prominent among them and had the best contacts with the senior leadership of the Church. For those who have not read my biography of Elder Whitney, after thorough study of his diaries, I came to realize that because of a susceptibility to flattery, difficulty coping with serious depression, and a hungry mind that thirsted for heavenly knowledge almost to a fault, Whitney was particularly vulnerable to Stayner’s claims. Beyond that, I cannot say why one as gifted and brilliant as Bishop Whitney would be so gullible as to accept Stayner’s strange doctrines and revelations. Stayner was not the only man to have a beguiling effect on Whitney during his lifetime, but he did have the most worrisome influence for the longest time—almost two decades.
I present this material now for several reasons. Some of it (the entries from President George Q. Cannon’s diaries) has just recently become available after languishing in the First Presidencies vault for a hundred plus years. Further, most of the entries quoted below from Whitney’s diary are already published in my biography of his extraordinary life and are therefore not really new. But the main reason to narrate this unusual chronicle is because it tells a story that is repeating itself today in tragic ways. False prophets have arisen among us and should be recognized for what they are.
In a similar manner to how Charles W. Stayner gathered disciples about him with the promise of great revelations and visitations and receiving high church positions, along with imparting special divine knowledge not had by others, Denver Snuffer is doing the same thing today. Whether we call them “Snufferites” or “the remnant” or some other label, this man is operating similarly (except in a digital internet age) to how Stayner worked, and is ensnaring some good faithful church members.
This kind of movement has happened before, is happening now (in greater numbers because of the internet) and may well happen again with another new false prophet (besides Stayner and Snuffer) as the decades pass before the second coming arrives. After all the prophets and apostles have taught and warned for decades, some members still turn aside and follow others into mists of darkness.
Our story, of how Stayner was able to capture the minds, hearts, and money, of wonderful Latter-day Saints whom one would suppose would never be so foolish/gullible, needs exposure; needs to be known by Snufferites and anyone else thinking to join a religious movement or group that operates outside the keys and authority of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles today.
The saga that unfolds below is told largely through diary entries made by Orson F. Whitney (OFWD) and to a lesser extent by President George Q. Cannon (GQCD), and a few others. By no means does this material tell the complete story. Orson held back the full truth from the senior Brethren when they interviewed him, as did his circle of associates. Orson also censored his diary and removed and destroyed many pages bearing on the subject, as well as some related personal correspondence. President Cannon and his apostolic associates came to know much of what was transpiring, but they didn’t know how deep down the rabbit hole this group had gone with their secret meetings and claims of divine manifestations. So, we don’t know everything. (Perhaps someday someone will publish or make available other records/diaries that will tell more of the story. Certainly, if Stayner or his brother Arthur kept a diary, such might be filled with further and better descriptions into what was going on and why.)
Also worth noting: in 1882, the Liverpool, England, mission was presided over by Elder Albert Carrington, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Normally this would be a marvelous boon; a member of the Twelve directing the missions of Europe. But Elder Carrington had succumbed to the lusts of the flesh and become a serial adulterer with mission office staff. He was later excommunicated, but at the time Elder Whitney served, and for some years afterword, he was still hiding the truth. This created a spiritual atmosphere in the mission office that was far less than desirable and therefore spawned fertile ground for doctrinal deviations.
Of the reasons for sending Bishop Whitney to the mission field, President Cannon wrote:
It was decided to send Bro. O. F. Whitney to England with the expectation that he should write for the “Star”, after he shall have had some months experience in the missionary field, to take the place of Elder C. W. Stayner. Bro. Stayner has been professing to receive revelations in which the intimation is conveyed though not expressly stated, that he is the great prophet to whom reference had been made in the revelations. He claims that a prophet will be raised up who will be of the seed of the Savior and of Ephriam, having the blood of Ephriam and of Joseph intermingled in his veins; and that he himself is the personage referred to by Isaiah and by Moses and by Joseph where he speaks of one “mighty and strong”. And he states that the Church will receive his mission, and Prest Taylor and Bro. Pratt especially. I gather the idea that he wishes them to be his counselors. He is very anxious to know how the presidency of the Church feel in regard to his revelations. This I gather from a letter that his brother Arthur has received from him, and in this letter he conveys the idea that before he can go ahead exercising his gifts he must be recognized by the First Presidency. There is evidently a trick of the devil to lead this soul astray. He has been very self-righteous for sometime, I understand, and has been seeking earnestly for more power; and he is, it is stated, very ambitious, and the adversary has taken advantage of him. He will not stop where he is if he retains this spirit. Today we may be willing to have the First Presidency decide upon these pretensions, but if they fail to go according to the revelations which he has received, of course it will seem like a natural consequence for him to proclaim his revelations as of greater importance and more binding than the action or decisions of the First Presidency, and as a result of their non-action it will be easy for him to conclude that they are in transgression. (GQCD, Sept. 13, 1881)
Meanwhile, when Orson F. Whitney was being trained by Charles W. Stayner to edit the Millennial Star, the mission periodical, he came under Stayner’s persuasive influence and first learned of the alleged revelations: “Spent most of the day indoors, writing. In the evening had a long conversation with Bro. C. W. Stayner. He told me many things about himself; how he became possessed of the gift of revelation, etc.” (OFWD, March 23, 1882). During their conversations Orson learned that Stayner believed in reincarnation and thought himself a prophet and seer, possessing many of his own written revelations. Orson became intrigued: “In the evening spent some time with Bro. Stayner in his room where he read me several of his revelations. I am praying for a testimony of their truth” (OFWD, March 24, 1882). Soon thereafter Whitney learned that a number of the other missionaries believed Stayner’s revelations and doctrines, among them John Donaldson, George C. Parkinson, and Joseph A. West. Orson formed fast friendships with several of these men, lasting much of their lives. Having heard Stayner’s claims, Orson wrote: “I will now cite some of the reasons I had for investigating and crediting so far as I did, the doctrines advanced by Brother C. W. Stayner.“—but then he did not, instead scribbling it out.
After Stayner sailed from Liverpool for home in Utah, Orson, George C. Parkinson, John Donaldson, and others, continued investigating their own peculiar conception of reincarnation: “Talking to Parkinson. Gave him list of names given me by Brother Donaldson nearly a year ago, of persons who have lived in this and former dispensations” (OFWD, March 22, 1883). This was no dispassionate intellectual philosophizing, but sustained pursuit. There is no evidence reincarnation was ever taught to local members or investigators.
Having returned to Salt Lake City, Charles W. Stayner continued sharing his revelations with others, bringing trouble upon himself. Orson wrote:
We . . . received word from Salt Lake [City] that Brother Stayner had been tried by the High Council of the Salt Lake Stake of Zion, for disseminating false doctrines, and that the High Council, presided over by Angus M. Cannon [George Q. Cannon’s brother], David O. Calder and Joseph E. Taylor, had sat in judgment upon him and his teachings and decided that he had been led astray by the evil one. They required that he renounce his belief in the reincarnation of spirits, in his own calling as the “One mighty and strong,” and in short everything connected with his revelations; to call in his writings, revoke his teachings, to get rebaptized and “sin no more.” This, Brother Stayner agreed to do, and did so to the best of my belief and knowledge. On learning of the decision I kept my word in regard to setting them aside if the Priesthood should decide against them, plighted to Brother Stayner on his leaving England.”
When Elder John Henry Smith, the new European mission president, arrived and took Albert Carrington’s place, Orson spoke with him at length about Stayner: “The arrival of Apostle [John Henry] Smith, who had attended the trial of Brother Stayner, confirmed previous reports, and after several conversations with him upon the subject, I reiterated my position and took his counsel in regard to Brother Stayner’s doctrines, which was to lay them aside as incorrect and banish them from my mind as far as possible.” It would be good to know more about Stayner’s trial (known as a Disciplinary Council today). Heber J. Grant wrote in his own diary that Elder John Henry Smith was not impressed with what he observed about how stake president Angus Cannon conducted the meeting: “John Henry Smith related . . . being present with F. M. Lyman and Brigham Young Jr. at the trial of Chas W. Stayner before the High Council of Salt Lake Stake. The acts of Angus M. Cannon on that occasion were a farce in his opinion. The trial was the supremest humbug he had ever witnessed.” I don’t think Elder John Henry Smith was condoning or vindicating Stayner by saying this, as other records show, but he was not impressed by the stake president and his methods. But as noted above, he let Whitney know in no uncertain terms what had happened to Stayner.
But even with such counsel and good intentions, even verbal commitment, Whitney was not so easily able to forsake Stayner and reincarnation as his autobiographical writings might indicate. He returned from his second mission in 1883, and on the very day he arrived home (July 7) he was again investigating the subject: “[I] walked up City Creek with Bro. [John] Nicholson and had a long talk concerning Stayner and his revelations.” Instead of casting them from his mind he sought more: “I called on C. W. Stayner. Had a long talk with him on religious matters. Returned home. . . . Then spent the evening at Stayners. Had a long talk with him” (OFWD, July 11, 1883). Charles W. Stayner had a brother, Arthur, who had also accepted his revelations. Between the Stayner brothers, Orson F. Whitney, John Donaldson, George C. Parkinson, and their wives, they soon had a sizeable group of believers in reincarnation and Charles Stayner’s alleged revelations and prophetic destiny. Eventually something resembling a secret prayer group coalesced and enlarged as members were added, with goals of getting revelations, seeing visions, and seeking the mysteries.
Orson soon visited John Donaldson, who lived in Teton, Idaho. It was here that Orson summarized in his diary his doctrinal theory about Elias; a theory he used to propound that Elias had several mortal bodies and probations:
Called at Donaldson’s [and talked about] the following from the Doc[trine] & Cov[enants]. Section 27. Verses 6 and 7. “And also with Elias, to whom I have committed the keys of bringing to pass the restoration of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days.” “And also John, the son of Zacharias, which Zacharias he (Elias) visited. (Luke says Gabriel hence Gabriel and Elias are one; and as Joseph Smith says Gabriel and Noah are one, then there are three in one) and gave promise that he should have a son, and his name should be John, and he should be filled with the spirit of Elias” (hence 4).
Section 110. Verse 12. “After this Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham (as Abraham stood at the head of his own dispensation and none but he had the right to deliver the keys thereof to another, then it follows that Abraham and Elias are one) saying that in us and our seed (Abraham’s promise) all generations after us should be blessed” (OFWD, August 30, 1883).
Orson also prepared a list of family and friends and church leaders he believed were reincarnated. At the left he wrote their initials, backwards, and then listed each person, generally from the Old and New Testaments or the Book of Mormon, that he thought they had previously been. The following is a sampling:
D. J. – [John Donaldson] – [illegible], Bartholemew, Nephi, Mormon, Jared
S. A. – [Arthur Stayner] – Paul, Moses, Solomon, Columbus, Eli, Elisha
Y. B. – [Brigham Young] – Peter
S. W. C. – [Charles W. Stayner] – Abel, Noah, Abraham, Joshua, [illegible], Samuel,
Gabriel, Elias, Cyrus, Washington, Mannassah
W. S. Z. – [Zina Smoot Whitney] – Esther
W. K. H. – [Horace K. Whitney] – Benjamin
W. M. H. – [Helen Mar Whitney] – Sariah
S. F. J. – [Joseph F. Smith] – Jonas, Timothy(?)
(The brackets contain an educated guess as to whom the initials identify. Others Whitney listed are not included above since they are more difficult or impossible to verify.)
In 1886 Whitney’s diary begins including entries where he used codenames (or codename initials) when referring to people in the secret prayer group. These codenames seem to represent their main reincarnated name (of a figure from the past), since many were supposedly reincarnated more than once. Due to the censoring of the diary this usage is not immediately apparent, but becomes reasonably convincing after careful examination. The list of initials and names was of significant help in identifying some reincarnated codenames. It is fairly certain that Charles W. Stayner is referenced as Joshua and also as Elias, or “E,” and that Arthur Stayner is “Moses.” John Donaldson is probably “Nephi”. Orson F. Whitney himself is probably “M. M.” (Mahonri Moriancumer or the brother or Jared).
One of Orson’s first diary entries to use mysterious initials is that of June 10, 1886: “Have recently heard some interesting things about my life, past and future. Also about the First Councilor to the President of the Church [George Q. Cannon], and the mission of the ones like unto M. & A. [Moses & Aaron?].” Then on October 6, 1886: “At Joshua’s [C. W. Stayner] in the evening, he saw [in alleged vision] a woman’s hand pointing to me. The hand was beautiful and shapely and the sleeve was black. The interpretation was that I was ‘a marked man,’ in the Church, and the Church, typified by the woman, who was in mourning, was pointing at me and looking with favor toward me—and that ere long I was to be the recipient of favor at its hands.” The element of flattery directed toward Whitney may have been one reason he believed Stayner so easily—he relished compliments and constantly noted them in his diary.
Whitney also recorded his own, similar, revelations. For example, on November 15, 1887, he wrote: “Last night, in a dream, a beautiful woman, angelic in appearance, was shown to me as in a vision. She told me she was my wife, that she lived in heaven and that I left her in charge of my home there when I came down upon the earth. Her face was entirely new to me, so far as recollection went, and she was very beautiful. This dream illustrates a doctrine I have believed for several years.”
The prayer group expended considerable effort seeking divine knowledge, including extended fasts, sometimes of three to seven days duration. As time passed others were added to the group, such as the new LDS convert and University of Utah music teacher Maude May Babcock, and John Beck, Bid S. Young (son of Apostle Brigham Young Jr.), Alfred W. McCune, Lyman R. Martineau, and their wives (though John Beck’s wife would have none of it).
Although Whitney enjoyed the most prominence of anyone in the group within the Church at large, the Stayner brothers, especially Charles, continued to be at its center. Somehow Stayner had managed to completely convince both Orson and the others that he would one day be the President of the Church and Prophet of God on earth. In one diary entry in early 1888, after reading comments of praise in the newspaper for one of his public sermons, Orson wrote, “All I am I owe to my Heavenly Father, and without Him I am nothing. That I have a mission I believe; I know; but it is not to lead Israel. I am only a forerunner and the humble representative of a cause. There cometh one after me mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoe I am barely worthy to unloose, as he the Master’s.”
In fact, a definite long-term strategy had been formulated whereby Orson would seek to convince President Lorenzo Snow to call Charles Stayner as an apostle, so that one day he could preside over the Church. Orson even believed he knew when that day would come: “It occurred to me today that Elias [C. W. Stayner] would be the 7th President of the Church in this dispensation. Therefore, that [the Church] having had three already and Pres. Woodruff being the 4th, there are two more to intervene before Elias takes the seat of Presidency” (OFWD, February 8, 1889). Again, the plan could only work if Stayner entered the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, from where church presidents are naturally selected by seniority. Heber J. Grant eventually became the seventh President of the Church—he rejected reincarnation, disliked the Stayner brothers, and worried about Whitney.
The meetings continued: “Met at Joshua’s [C. W. Stayner] and began another series of prayer meetings, this time with two objects in [excised text] received word from the Lord. The Church and Kingdom is to be universal before Christ comes, etc. Thursday and Friday continued the prayer meetings” (OFWD, April 24, 1889). A week later he wrote: “At Joshua’s this afternoon I exercised the g[ift] of r[evelation], pure and simple, for the first time. It came in fulfillment of Joshua’s words at a previous meeting. Moses [Arthur Stayner] already had it and exercised it at the former meeting” (OFWD, March 1, 1889). The details of these meetings are mostly lost because they were removed from the diaries or never included in it.
Evidently the group was unable to keep their meetings completely secret, and word began to reach various ears, both on a local and general Church level. In mid-May of 1889, Whitney had a lengthy conversation with one of the Brethren, but those pages are removed from the diary so most of the conversation is lost, as is the name of the authority he spoke with. The remaining portion states: “We parted very kindly and he told me he loved me and only spoke as he did on account of his interest in my welfare. He asked me about [text excised, probably C. W. Stayner] and his belief in [text excised] things, and I answered that I knew [text excised, unquestionably C. W. Stayner’s] position was that he honored the decision of the Priesthood in his case, and that he never expected to take up those things unless the Priesthood commanded it.”
When conversing with the senior Brethren, Orson seemed to downplay the activities of the prayer group, and soft-pedal their aspirations for Charles Stayner. Orson never publicly taught or wrote about reincarnation. He was strictly circumspect in following counsel to keep his private opinions and beliefs out of the larger public eye (the exception being among close friends that he occasionally recruited or discussed spiritual experiences with). This careful course saved him from serious trouble later in his life. Yet he continued to tenaciously cling to his views, occasionally stating that they had been revealed to him, or that he had been shown things in vision about himself and others, in regards to reincarnation or multiple probations for the same spirit. Sometimes he explained his reasoning in his diary:
Today I picked up a copy of the [Deseret] News containing a discourse by Pres. George Q. Cannon at the last General Conference, Sunday am April 7, 1889, in which the following passages occur: Speaking of Jesus Christ, the son of God, he says, “Who is this divine Son? Jesus Christ. Was He, the Son of God, born of a woman? Yes. Well, then, if one God be born of a woman why not other Gods be born of women? Is He the exception to the entire race?” In another part he says, in relation to the power that full grown spirits have of being compressed within infant bodies: “It is a strange thing to state; but because we do not understand all things, shall we reject truths?”
Now if Bro. Cannon had gone a step farther he would have said right out “Brethren and Sisters; we are not all equal, as sons and daughters of God. Some are Gods who are undergoing reincarnation, and some perhaps are only children of God, incarnate for the first or second time or such a matter. Some belong only to this planet, others have lived on other planets and been glorified therefrom to the celestial worlds.” And yet Bro. Lyman and other Apostles declare this to be a false doctrine. I declare it to be true, for God has shown it to me as being true and Pres. Cannon touched on things in that sermon that I have believed for the last seven years. The Church will yet accept reincarnation, of Gods and sons of God, in this and other worlds as true. (May 27, 1889).
Whitney occasionally evidenced a streak of pride in his diary, usually when he was recording others’ compliments about his speaking, but also when something he believed was being refuted. President Woodruff, who had undoubtedly heard of the Stayner-Whitney group, had spoken in a public meeting in Manti, Utah, about it:
There is another thing I wish to refer to here. I have heard that in Zion there are some men who entertain the idea that they inherit the body and spirit of Moses, or Abraham, or David, or Noah, or somebody other than themselves. I hope none of you here indulge in anything of this kind, because it is a most foolish, nonsensical and false doctrine. You gaze upon a man who professes to have inherited the body or spirit of Moses, or any of those I have named, and I think you will conclude that his appearance does not indicate that such is the case; at any rate, it certainly has not improved him. Brother Woodruff, Brother Cannon, Brother Smith, Brother Lorenzo Snow, or any of the brethren, will never inherit anyone’s body or spirit but their own, in time or in eternity, unless the devil gets into them. It is Satan who inspires men to believe in such absurd things. He delights in having any of the brethren entertain false ideas, no matter what they are. I tell you that whoever sees me in time or eternity will see Wilford Woodruff, not Noah, nor Abraham, nor Enoch. Every man has his own identity, and he never will lose that identity. Therefore, when you hear such doctrine as that advanced, do not believe it. There are a good many things Satan would like us to believe; but we must guard against these.
Word of these public comments soon reached Bishop Whitney’s ears. On June 3, 1889, he noted that “At 4 pm. met at Joshua’s with Moses and Matthias. Had a precious time,” but then referenced something else—”This evening I heard that Pres. Woodruff, in a meeting at Manti, a few days ago, publicly declared that the doctrine of reincarnation, that is, one spirit having several bodies, to be false; that he was Wilford Woodruff and no one else, etc. All right, Bro. Woodruff, if you really said it, it is between you and the Lord. I believe it to be a true doctrine, and have for the last seven years [text excised].”
During the meetings in Manti, Utah, both President Woodruff and Elder Francis M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve had firmly refuted reincarnation doctrine, and warned members against it. This was the first of many such occasions wherein members of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency denounced reincarnation, and Whitney’s group deserved most of the blame for the public rebukes. The groups actions and views continued to leak out and reach the ears of the presiding authorities, usually in garbled form. The larger a secret group becomes, the harder it is to keep secret. Whitney even had to cope with friends and acquaintances that agitated the issue: “Bro. W. A. King took me on to Springville from Provo, and on the way we amicably adjusted a little difficulty arising from the report that I had heard that he said the reason I was not chosen an Apostle last conference was because I had been ‘preaching false doctrine.’ He denied saying so, but admitted he had spoken to Apostle Lyman about my views and his own (King’s) on the principle of reincarnation. He said he had been indiscreet but not malicious and asked my forgiveness, which I granted” (OFWD, December 7, 1889).
Orson and the Stayners continued with their strategy to elevate Charles to the apostleship. Another hope they entertained was that they could convince the Church—from the top down—to accept reincarnation as true doctrine. When President Lorenzo Snow wrote Orson a kind letter of friendship, Orson “Read the letter from Bro. Snow to Joshua and Moses at the latter’s home today. They rejoiced. Joshua said that L[?]. had told him I would soon have an interview with L[orenzo]. S[now]. and that it would lead to one between L[orenzo]. S[now]. and him [C. W. Stayner]” (OFWD, March 27, 1890). Patience continued to be in order for the group’s scheme.
Whitney’s knowledge that his reincarnation views had reached President Woodruff and Elder Lyman worried him, and when opportunity arose he discussed it with President Lorenzo Snow. Since their first acquaintance, President Snow had become a close friend and mentor, and also a doctrinal protector. President Snow knew that Whitney loved deep doctrine and trusted him enough to speculate in private. After one discussion Orson recorded: “Bro. [Lorenzo] Snow was much pleased with our visit. He seems to think a great deal of me and takes much interest in my welfare. He warmly commended and endorsed my remarks yesterday . . . and in a private interview told me several things of great interest. One of the things he said he had kept [confidential] for 50 years. It pertained to the lineage of my grandparents N[ewel]. K. Whitney and wife and H[eber]. C. Kimball, who, he said, the Prophet Joseph told his sister Eliza, were descendants of the Savior” (OFWD, November 26, 1888).
Lorenzo and Orson enjoyed a close personal affinity. President Snow gave Bishop Whitney a priesthood blessing in which, among other unrecorded things, he hinted at a future call to the Apostleship:
[Several pages missing] hands were upon my head he predicted that I would be “lifted up and occupy places high and glorious in this life,” and when he sat down he said that the Lord had shown him some things concerning me that he did not dare tell, “But,” he added, “they will all come along in due time.”
During our talks he told me that his sister, the late Eliza R. Snow Smith was a firm believer in the principle of reincarnation and that she claimed to have received it from Joseph the Prophet, her husband. He [Lorenzo] said he saw nothing unreasonable in it, and could believe it, if it came to him from the Lord or His oracle. He said [scissor snipped excision for two lines], that I had a revealing mind, and was wonderfully gifted in the power to reach after and grasp the mysteries. He said he loved to talk with me, but that I must be careful to whom I talked for most men did not care anything for these principles, being “darkened in mind,” that as I grew and increased in the knowledge of God men would become jealous of me and seek to injure me. But I will befriend you, he said, and I want you to feel perfectly free with me. He told me that he heard Joseph Smith tell a man once that he would become a God and reign in glory, but that before that he would have to be crucified as Christ was. That man is still living [one line missing, mid-November 1887].
Two years later, they again conversed upon deep doctrine: “Left Salt Lake for Brigham City on a visit to Pres. Lorenzo Snow. . . . We had a very interesting conversation this day and the three days following, on ‘the mysteries.’ He told me he had never unbossomed himself to mortal man as he had to me, considered me a close friend and a brother. He blessed me the day before [text excised] set [text excised] his history” (OFWD, June 8, 1889). (Of course, Lorenzo and Orson’s private doctrinal discussions do not constitute church doctrine then or today.)
A year later, as Orson’s worries about his reputation with the senior brethren—meaning Presidents Woodruff, Cannon, and Elder Lyman—intensified, he wrote:
At Brigham City on my last visit, Apostle Snow told me that Pres. Woodruff thought as much of me today as he ever did, and that all prejudice occasioned by Bro. Lyman’s talk had passed away. I asked him if I had done anything to cause him to lose confidence in me. “No, indeed, my dear brother,” said Lorenzo; “I regard it as a great blessing that the Lord has thrown us together. I have defended you to the Brethren repeatedly, when these things have come up, and told them that I knew your views and your spirit, and that no man could lay his finger on a line of false doctrine that you had ever written or spoken, and that there was no cause to condemn you whatever. But you must be wise and not express your opinion, even in private,” etc. I asked him if he remembered the blessing he gave me a year ago. “Yes,” said he, “I remember it, and I may yet have it in my power to help fulfill my prediction.”
I told him the story of Elias, etc. with which he was much interested and surprised—did not put credence in it exactly, but said it might be true, etc. (OFWD, May 21, 1890).
President Snow continued protecting Orson amid all the rumors. That he kept his reincarnation theories to himself (or within the prayer group) helped—but that Whitney had to be defended to the other Brethren portended that matters were becoming problematic and complicated. And even with this strain in play, their conversation still contained further hint of a possible future apostolic call from President Snow.
President George Q. Cannon did not share President Snow’s unbridled goodwill for Bishop Whitney’s unorthodox views or for Stayner’s uncanny influence over others, and his own concerns magnified. He received word from his son, Elder Abraham H. Cannon (of the Quorum of the Twelve), that contributed to his worries:
As my letters from my son Abraham will explain some things worth preserving I append copies of them:
My Dear Father. . . .
I have been informed since you left that John Beck has fallen into the hands of Charles and Arthur Stayner, who are “milking” him to advance some of their “wild cat” schemes. John Beck’s wife says they have induced him to put up money on a so-called gold property in Idaho. He is also encouraged by them to believe that he is a great spiritual leader and should occupy a prominent ecclesiastical position. Mrs. Beck is very much worried over his condition, as he spends almost his whole time with the Stayners to the neglect of his business and family. With the Stayners, Orson Whitney and B. S. Young seem to be operating, and Orson has been engaged to write John Beck’s biography. I am told that Charley Staynerhas made John Beck believe that he (Stayner) is to be the next leader of the Church, for he is a spirit of a great personage who has lived upon the earth and has now come again to lead the people out of trouble. In this case, John Beck is to be made an Apostle. The Stayners have expressed considerable feeling against the Cannons, and say that when this change occurs the Cannons will be left entirely out of consideration. Brother Beck’s wife seems to be quite worried about his present condition and desires to know what she should do to get John Beck away from these associates. I told her that if she could produce evidence to show that the Stayners were teaching false doctrine they could be tried for their fellowship, but unless she and others were willing to testify against them, no Church court would entertain a case. Mr. Bamberger says that your statement to him that John Beck could not be trusted has been fully verified for he has deserted Bamberger entirely, and does not accept his counsel in many matters which would be to his interest. Nevertheless, I think he can be controlled in a proper manner. Accept my love for yourself and Aunt Carlie, and remember me kindly to the brethren.
Your Affectionate Son,
Abraham H. Cannon
Salt Lake City, Utah, July 2nd, 1895.
(GQCD, July 9, 1895)
As far as is known, President Cannon never formally moved against Orson with church disciplinary measures, but did publicly and forcefully speak against reincarnation when opportunity arose, including at the October 1893 general conference. Orson recorded: “Attended all day. pm. Pres. George Q. Cannon followed Pres. Woodruff in speaking. He denounced as false the doctrine of reincarnation” (OFWD, October 8, 1893). So also the next day—”At a Priesthood Meeting . . . the First Presidency, I am told, all three condemned the reincarnation doctrine as false” (OFWD, October 9, 1893).
President Cannon’s diary also mentions someone else that was teaching reincarnation, who seems to have no connection to Stayner’s group: “A case was appealed to the First Presidency by John Wilkinson, counselor to Bishop McMullin of Leeds, St. George Stake. He had been tried by the Bishop, and afterwards by the High Council and in both cases they had decided against him. We sustained the decision of the High Council in this case. He has been teaching the doctrine of reincarnation and other follies, and adheres to this, despite all that the brethren have said to him. We wrote to him that we could not fellowship anyone who taught that doctrine, and that we would sustain the decision of the High Council.” (GQCD, March 29, 1894.) One reason Bishop Whitney escaped such censure is that he did not teach reincarnation outside the secret prayer group and a few specially selected friends.
During May, 1895, one of the most mysterious entries is found in Whitney’s diary. It was scribbled out instead of being removed with scissors, and is legible: “Thursday, May [?], 1895: Began a seven days fast with Joshua, Moses, David, and others, and revealed great things. Nephi came down from the North during our meetings. There was now seven more of our mystical number, viz: Joshua, Moses, Nephi, David, Ishmael, Mormon, and Gideon.”
In August and September of 1895, Whitney’s involvement with the Stayner’s and his views regarding reincarnation were deliberated in meetings by the Quorum of the Twelve and Elder Heber J. Grant was assigned to “warn Bishop O. F. Whitney against carelessness in regard to attending meetings, as also to urge him not to become too intimate with Miss [Maude May] Babcock, or the Stayner brothers. . . .” President Cannon recorded:
The First Presidency spent a considerable portion of the day in conversation with Brother Geo. C. Parkinson. . . . Afterwards the conversation turned on a subject that had been mentioned to him by Brother F. M. Lyman. It was concerning his being unsound in the entertaining of certain doctrine said to have been taught by Brother Charles W. Stayner in England. It is the doctrine of reincarnation. Brother Stayner had taught at that time that various personages who had lived in olden times were again on the earth, and there has been some suspicion in the minds of the brethren, some of them, that there was an intimacy between Brother Parkinson, Bishop O. F. Whitney and Charles W. Stayner, and that the two former sympathized with the latter in some of his views. It was to determine this that Brother Lyman spoke to Brother Parkinson. A meeting had been held at Franklin in which Brother Whitney had laid his hands on Brother Parkinson and blessed him, and promised him great things, among others, that he should be one of the Twelve Apostles; and Brother Parkinson had in turn laid his hands upon Bishop Whitney and promised him great things; and the rumor that reached us was that Brother Charles W. Stayner had been reviving some of his old teachings which he had abjured in the days of President Taylor, and was holding meetings secretly with some of his sympathizers. Brother Parkinson explained concerning the meeting, and according to his explanation it was a very innocent affair. Upon being asked if he had believed that he was to be one of the Twelve Apostles, he said, yes; he had been promised that, and he believed that the Spirit of the Lord would not deceive anyone, though he did not claim that it would be fulfilled in this life. He entered a general denial concerning believing in reincarnation. He said he did not believe the doctrine, although he had heard and thought a great deal about it. He related a very curious incident. When he first went to Liverpool, having been appointed to take charge of the Liverpool Conference, he found the Elders who were laboring there traveling from one saint’s house to another, and not attempting to preach the Gospel outside and to make converts, and he was much exercised over this. On one occasion he retired to his room and knelt down by the bedside to pray, and he said, while in this position a map was spread out before him, covering about half the bed, in which he saw the houses which the Elders visited and a deep rut in which the Elders traveled. Its depth was about up to their armpits, and this rut or roadway touched at these different houses. He said he wondered why the rest of the people and of the houses were not on the map; but it was suggested to him that efforts should be made to spread out and hold meetings in the various cities and create some stir by preaching the Gospel. He had followed this suggestion with excellent results, being able at the end of three months to make a very good report as to the number of baptisms. After seeing this map, he said he appeared to be lying on the bed on his back, and a very large man came and stood at the corner of the bedpost at his head. He said he was a man dressed in light clothing. He addressed some questions to this man, two of which he could not remember, but the third question he had a distinct recollection of, and it was concerning Peter. This man told him that the person who was Peter in the days of Jesus was Brigham Young now; and when he asked the question, where was Brigham Young when Peter came with James and John and laid his hands upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery? this person said that Brigham Young was asleep at that time – the inference being that his spirit had left his body and taken possession of the old body that was occupied by Peter. We did not ask Brother Parkinson what he thought of this – whether he believed it or not. I regretted afterwards that we did not, because having had in the seeing of the map something that was literally fulfilled and the other being a part of the same manifestation, it might give him ground to think that it was true also. He said when he came to himself, instead of laying on the bed he was kneeling where he had been. If he had any such manifestation, it undoubtedly was from the devil. We had a long conversation concerning these matters; and being interrogated by President Smith concerning the belief of those people who entertained the idea that reincarnation was right, he said that their belief was that they had different probations, and for every probation had a body, and it was said that the Savior had appeared many times, and had a body every time He had appeared. This extraordinary doctrine would convey the idea that men had bodies like suits of clothes – to be put on and off at will; or like actors, appearing in one part dressed in one garb and in another scene in another garb. Whether there is any lingering feeling in Brother Parkinson’s mind as to the truth of this doctrine we were not able to perceive; but he certainly denied quite strongly that he had any faith in it.
We have been somewhat desirous to have this matter investigated in his case and Brother Whitney’s, because it will not do for influential men like they are to imbibe false doctrine and to go unquestioned concerning it. (GQCD, December 11, 1895)
The Quorum of the Twelve knew they had a rare asset in Bishop Whitney, and they wanted to keep him free of problems and use his influence for untold good in the Church. Despite the small secret portion of his life, Whitney ministered to his flock as bishop; preached by the power of the Holy Ghost to large and captivated audiences everywhere, spoke comforting words to congregations at countless funerals, wrote and published uplifting poetry, blessed the sick, and worked hard to feed and clothe his large family. His fame was so ubiquitous that a Mormon settlement in Idaho asked for and received permission to name their newly organized ward after him. Even with his busy and stressful life, he managed to navigate the many challenges that confronted him.
As the years passed, President George Q. Cannon continued to be anxious about Whitney’s reincarnation doctrinal side. During his year-long tenure as a teacher at Utah State University (in Logan, Utah) in 1896, Orson noticed a Salt Lake City newspaper article that vexed him:
Under date of the above, the Salt Lake Herald reported remarks made by President George Q. Cannon at the S. L. Stake Conference in which he stated that Theosophists believed in reincarnation and that it was “a damnable doctrine.” Some, he said, held that Brigham Young was St. Peter reincarnate and Joseph Smith someone else reincarnated. He condemned it all as false, and confounded or identified reincarnation and Theosophy. The following, in reply, appeared in the Herald of March 11th: [Whitney then gives unattributed newspaper clipping containing rebuttal or explanation, likely written by himself, regarding Theosophy and reincarnation.]
I suppose my friend George C. Parkinson, is partly responsible for Pres. Cannon’s assault. He informed me a short time ago that he related to F. M. Lyman his dream or rather vision at Liverpool in which Brigham Young appeared to him and told him he was St. Peter. Apostle Lyman doubtless told the Presidency about it; also of Arthur Stayner’s having admitted to him (Lyman) a belief in reincarnation.
Lyman R. Martineou told me today (March 11) that M[athias] F. Cowley, Parkinson’s counselor in the Oneida Stake, Idaho, said today that F. M. Lyman told him there were some in Logan, who believed in reincarnation, and that when it took hold of one as it had of C. W. Stayner, that he never got over it.
I guess he’s right. I would like to hear some of Pres. Cannon’s “strong reasons” myself. “Damnable Theory” doesn’t dispose of the matter at all. They will kick the mustard plant and scatter its seed the wider” (OFWD, March 7, 1896).
Whitney’s pride here neared rebellion. No matter how President Snow might defend Whitney in private deliberations of the First Presidency and Twelve, and even though Whitney did not teach reincarnation publicly, President Cannon and others still condemned reincarnation doctrines (without naming names) at the pulpit, with President Woodruff’s full support: “Conference closed today. Heard that President George Q. Cannon denounced reincarnation, secret meetings, etc., this afternoon and Pres. Woodruff endorsed his remarks” (OFWD, April 6, 1897).
It was during these same months that further information came to President Cannon regarding the group’s activities: “As we were returning on the car to Salt Lake City I was somewhat surprised, in response to a question which I asked Brother B. S. Young, (who with his wife, Isaac Clayton & wife, Sister May Babcock and Brother John Donaldson, was on the car) to learn that they had not attended conference, and one of them remarked that they did not know there was a conference. They had been at Bountiful, they said, visiting. We have heard that there are secret meetings held there at Brother Chas. W. Stayner’s, and by these individuals (excepting Brother & Sister Clayton), and it struck me very unfavorably to know that they were in Bountiful and yet they apparently not be aware that there was a conference being held there, so absorbed were they in visiting somebody.” (GQCD, March 14, 1897.) And then four days later:
I related to the brethren what I had noticed last Sunday on the car coming from Bountiful, concerning Brother B. S. Young and his companions. This led to a recital by President Lorenzo Snow of a conversation that was had between himself and Bishop Orson F. Whitney. It seems that Miss Babcock intends to be married to Brother C. W. Stayner, and expected to be able to have the ceremony performed in the temple. Brother Snow had suggested to John Nicholson to have conversation with her, which he had for upwards of half an hour; but she was determined in her conclusion to be married to him and surprised that she could not be married in the temple. Brother Whitney afterwards came and saw President Snow, who supposed at first, from the questions asked, that Brother Whitney wished to have some lady (Sister Babcock, he thought) sealed perhaps to himself (there has been a great deal of talk at one time and another concerning her attachment to Bishop Whitney); but after conversing some time he learned that Bishop Whitney did not consider that it was the will of the Lord that he should take May Babcock, and he was speaking for Brother Stayner. He also had the idea that the marriage could be solemnized in the temple. Brother Snow told him, no, there was nothing of that kind done in the temple, and said further to Brother Whitney, that Brother Stayner was a bad man, which appeared to startle Brother Whitney, and which he did not seem to accept, for on parting with Brother Snow he remarked that he hoped he would change his views concerning Brother Stayner, as he was a very good man. There is a feeling in the Council that there is something wrong in that quarter, and this suspicion arises from hearing there are secret meetings being held by them. (GQCD, March 18, 1897.)
President Cannon feared for others besides these named individuals and Bishop Whitney:
I stated to the Council that I had heard that Brother C. W. Stayner had invited Brother Siebert, a new convert who had come on from Switzerland, to meet with him on Friday and listen to revelations that he had received. This led to a number of expressions of suspicion from the brethren concerning the meetings that were being held under the influence of C. W. Stayner. It is feared that Bishop Orson F. Whitney is impregnated with false ideas and doctrines derived perhaps from Brother Stayner, and a number of brethren show a disposition to be very intimate with him and to have secret meetings with him. The question of how to obtain information concerning these revelations was talked over, but no conclusion was reached. I myself have feared the effect of Brother Siebert going to hear these revelations, because he is a new convert, and such a man as Brother Stayner, having already great influence over men of experience, might obtain a wrong influence over him. (GQCD, June 24, 1897.)
John Beck’s wife, who had attended a couple of the secret meetings, was having none of it, and sought out President Cannon to express her anxiety for her husband:
Came to the office and had an interview with Sister John Beck, whose name, I think, is Bertha. She appears to be a superior woman, intelligent, and evidently well educated, and ladylike in her manner. She has grown almost hysterical with grief at her situation. Her husband has made no provision for her, nor, as I gathered from her, for any of his wives, in the event of any disaster overtaking him or of his death, and she is very much concerned about it, because from all human appearance at present he is likely to be very seriously involved and become bankrupt and all his property be taken; still there may something open before him, for he has been exceedingly blessed in these matters. But that which she deplores most, and which she feels most concerned about, is his association with the Stayners – C. W. & Arthur Stayner – and O. F. Whitney, B. S. Young and John Donaldson. She says she has been twice in company with these men, and has seen the bottles of wine from which they have been drinking. She has known them to have as many as six bottles of champagne and drink their contents. She has heard them speak in the most disrespectful manner of the Church, and she has heard that they were particularly down on the Cannons. They expect, when President Woodruff dies, there will be a great change. C. W. Stayner has told her husband that he is the son of Richard III of England, and that he is to be an Apostle, and he has told her that he was the second son of our Lord Jesus. A description of their conversation and the influence they have over her husband is, if true, certainly very startling. I do not question the truth of what she says, because we have heard from different sources statements corroborative of her’s. She has a very deep feeling against C. W. Stayner. He has told her what he could do for her if she would work with him, and her husband has tried to have her arrange for him to live at her house; but she says she has such a thorough disgust for him, in consequences of his utterances concerning the Church, that she looks upon him as a man that she could not tolerate in the least. He draws heavily from her husband, who, instead of giving money to his family, gives it freely to the Stayners and to this party of men. I am not altogether surprised at hearing these statements, though it is exceedingly painful to think that such men as B. S. Young and Orson F. Whitney could be drawn into the meshes of such a man as C. W. Stayner and accept him as some sort of a revelator. I promised her that I would see her husband and see what I could do with him to have him do something for his wives, so that in the event of anything happening they would have some provision made for them. I fear, however, that his affairs are now in such a condition that it will be almost out of his power to do anything, especially as he is so infatuated with these people of whom she speaks. (GQCD, September 20, 1897.)
This entry represents the last one found in President Cannon’s diary in relation to Stayner, Whitney, or others of the secret group. While diary entries may have ceased, concern did not. The late 1890s saw Whitney become as enamored with Charles W. Stayner, or Elias—”E”—as he ever would, even to the point of giving him half his income and offering more. He believed this temporal sacrifice would increase his own prosperity. In October of 1897 he sold his home, and after paying off the mortgage, “The residue [$291.90] I laid before E. as an offering and it was divided as follows: E. – $144. M. M [Orson?]. – $120. M[oses]. – $12. N[ephi]. – $12. The balance of $3.90 was returned to me. This was given as an example of such things.” These donations that he could ill afford meant Whitney’s family lived in a rental home for several years until his brother Horace gave him a house.
Possibly as a reward for Orson’s monetary contributions, Arthur Stayner received a vision commending him: “H[eber]. C. K[imball]. was seen by Moses to lay his right hand on my left shoulder, standing to my left and a little in the rear, and say: ‘Orson, this is a good thing that you have done.'” Whitney explained: “I had said some days before that if the Lord would give me a blessing in money I would lay every dollar of it before E. and let the Lord [decide] how it should be disposed of. I had simply kept my word. [line missing] The other day at B. I gave my last ten dollars to E. as an offering—$10 of $15 that he had given me. Two or three days later $10 was given to me by Dan Spencer. I regarded it as my offering returned. I have made offerings to E. at different times aggregating hundreds of dollars, and that when I was in great need myself. Zina and I gave our house to him (this same house) but it was returned. She joined with me in this offering also.” The same evening that Whitney sold his home he reported that “we all met at 717 and received each a blessing from the Lord in the following order: Keturah, myself, Esther, Ishmael, Moses, Nephi, Tamar. It was a grand meeting. The Angel Raphael appeared and delivered a message” (OFWD, October 16, 1897). Since Joshua, or Charles Stayner (also “E”), is not listed, it is likely that he was voicing the blessings given to the others.
As rumor of the group’s activities reached the Church Offices, a friend clued him in: “Had an interview with Brother Dan Collett at the Historian’s Office. He showed himself my friend. He told me of reports that had reached the President’s Office about me and others and of a remark made by President George Q. Cannon, asking ‘Why the Presidency of the Stake did not ferret out these secret meetings, oath-bound organizations, etc.'” (OFWD, January 5, 1898). Then a few weeks later Whitney “Had another interview with Bro. Collett. He told me more of the rumors that had reached the President’s Office” (OFWD, January 24, 1898). These rumors sometimes spread in a distorted condition, as would be expected. Matters became more difficult for Orson to navigate and control. President Snow knew Whitney believed in reincarnation and had heard some of his theories and explanations, but exactly how much, if anything, he may have known about the group’s secret prayer meetings is uncertain, beyond what he said to the other Brethren, as reported above. The situation was deteriorating; secretive efforts were undertaken to expose Orson and the group and have him removed from office as bishop.
Then in late April of 1898, as matters were coming to a head, an opportunity arose for Whitney to discuss the whole matter in-depth with some key church authorities, and for him to try to persuade them to accept reincarnation as church doctrine. He jumped at the chance, though with care and caution:
From 5:45 pm to 6:45 pm this evening I had a very interesting interview with President Joseph F. Smith, in much of which Apostle Heber J. Grant and A. O. Woodruff took part. I was asked about my connection with Bro. C[harles]. W. Stayner and if I sympathized with his views; those formerly held by him at Liverpool, and which he was strongly suspected of having revived.
This gave me an opportunity of refuting the falsehoods put in circulation . . . that Bro. Stayner, myself and others were founding a new Church, had an oath-bound organization, a regalia, etc. I told the brethren that these were outrageous falsehoods, that Bro. Stayner was one of the most loyal men I knew, that we were Latter-day Saints firm in the faith, and that the Church of God was the only Church we wanted anything to do with.
I did admit, however, to having had faith in Reincarnation, or Rehabitment of Spirits though I had never sought to spread it [line missing] private, that I could believe it if the Church Authorities sanctioned it . . . because there were evidences enough in the Church books to justify such a belief. “It is thought,” remarked Bro. Grant, “that you and the brethren associated with you, claim to have received advanced truth and we are behind the times.”
“I never heard such a remark,” I replied. “If I or anyone else taught any doctrine, true or false without authority, it would be [illegible] times, not you behind them.”
President Smith finally said “Well, if there is anything in our books that justifies a belief in Reincarnation I would like to know it; for to me it seems opposed to the fundamental principles of Mormonism. I answered that I would take great pleasure in citing him to those passages in the books that contain the doctrine, and he invited me to do so. This was a great point gained, as [line missing] to listen to a statement of that kind.[Six lines here scribbled out] His [illegible] of God presented [illegible] interview is superior to our [illegible] before and after this occasion.
The brethren were all very kind, manifesting the deepest interest in my welfare, anxious that I should not “get off” etc.
President Smith told me that Heber Grant thought as much of me as one man could of another, and assured me of his own warm personal friendship and brotherly love. He said it was President George Q. Cannon and Apostle F. M. Lyman, who most frequently brought this matter up about myself and Bro. Stayner, which did not surprise me, as that is in fulfillment of a vision had by Bro. Donaldson in Bro. Stayner’s house (20th Ward) years ago. The vision of the brick throwing, Bro. L[yman] throwing them, and Bro. Cannon behind the shrubbery watching or directing it. The effects of attack, myself and A[rthur[ S[tayner]; C[harles]. W. [Stayner] being in a house nearby and we going to him walking as in the calmness of the gospel, in the [plasticity?] of truth and in the self-possession of the Holy Spirit. Such was the language of the interpretation by revelation through C[harles]. W. [Stayner]” (OFWD, April 27, 1898).
As had happened before, Bishop Whitney had not been entirely forthcoming and held back or soft-pedalled many things. Later entries indicate that Whitney “Began a letter to President Joseph F. Smith, to accompany the statement regarding Reincarnation” (OFWD, April 29, 1898), and that this long-sought opportunity to convince President Joseph F. Smith that reincarnation was true doctrine that should be accepted by the Church excited the group: “At Bountiful today read to C. W. [Stayner], Arthur [Stayner], B. S. [Young], Sis. Stayner and Miss B[abcock] my statement and letter to President Smith. It pleased them highly. Only a few alterations were suggested. [I] Shall copy it and send it in as soon as possible; reserving a duplicate” (OFWD, May 5, 1898). On May 11, 1898, Orson F. Whitney turned in the letter: “At 20 minutes past 4 this afternoon I handed to Secretary George F. Gibbs at the President’s Office the letter and statement to President Joseph F. Smith. The latter was not in the Office, but Elder Gibbs promised to lay the document on his desk. This day is historic with me; or will be from this time” (OFWD, May 11, 1898). Whitney had high hopes his statement would pave the way for multiple probations to become church doctrine, and gave a copy to President Snow also:
Conversed with President Lorenzo Snow, at the Salt Lake Temple, on the subject of the letter and statement to President Smith, a copy of which I left with him (L[orenzo]. S[now].) for perusal a few days ago. He said he had read it, but wanted to read it again. The first part was perfectly clear to him; He fully believed that Christ had two bodies; but what was the need of Elijah having more than one?” We talked the matter over. I told him about himself and Ezekiel the Prophet, and bore testimony to the worth and wisdom of Elias [Charles W. Stayner]. He said my letter breathed a good Spirit and he did not believe that I could be led astray by man, or that I would believe a doctrine without good reasons. He thought “Bro. Joseph” [Joseph F. Smith] would have something to study over in the Statement, for there were things in it that could not be contradicted. He talked also of obedience to counsel, in which I acquiesced, and said I had no thought, neither had Bro. Stayner, other than to honor the Priesthood. I had not sought to spread this doctrine, and had made the Statement only at President Smith’s request. He said he wanted to study the Statement, so that if the subject came before the council of the Twelve and the Presidency he would be prepared to speak a word for me, etc. (OFWD, June 3, 1898).
President Snow still professed willingness to watch Bishop Whitney’s back, but seemed less enthusiastic. The discussions with President Joseph F. Smith and President Lorenzo Snow marked the beginning of a gradual turning point, or watershed period in Whitney’s life.
With President Woodruff’s death in early September 1898 and Lorenzo Snow consequently becoming the new Prophet, the time finally arrived when Orson sought to leverage his friendship with President Snow to obtain the apostleship for Charles W. Stayner: “Had a very important interview with Pres. Snow, paving the way for one between him and E., next day. Bore testimony that E. was a prophet of God and that I had been sent of God in his behalf” (OFWD, October 1, 1898). Whitney had now asked the Prophet of the Lord to view Stayner as he did—as a prophet—indirectly asking President Snow to call him as an Apostle. Three days later Whitney returned for an answer: “Had another interview with the President in the Temple. He was kind as usual, but has no faith in E.” (OFWD, October 4, 1898).
Stayner and Whitney’s plan had not worked. President Snow, along with the other General Authorities, knew about Stayner’s disciplinary trial nineteen years earlier, and of the disciplinary action taken against him. They had also thoroughly discussed Stayner’s false doctrines and his uncanny influence over Whitney and the others. Despite his kindly feelings toward Whitney, President Snow was not going to recognize Stayner as a prophet or call him as an apostle. Indeed, President Snow’s eyes may have been opened at this point to a fuller realization of Whitney’s obsession with reincarnation and Charles Stayner. It was at this very time that President Snow could have called Orson F. Whitney as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—but did not, instead naming his other protégé, Rudger Clawson.
Over the next two years the private and supposedly secret part of Orson’s life fell apart: Neither he nor Charles Stayner were called as apostles by President Snow. Then, his first wife Zina died, leaving him grief stricken and deeply depressed, to the point of contemplating suicide. Next, in late 1899, within but four months of each other, Arthur and Charles Stayner both died. Orson was completely devastated and humbled, and had to personally reevaluate everything related to reincarnation and Charles Stayner. It had all been a gigantic, useless, long-term fraud that had brought him much trouble and he was beginning to realize that fact.
He had, in fact, been considered for the apostleship a decade before, but the doctrinal issues had disqualified him. Elder Heber J. Grant wrote in his diary of the deliberations of the First Presidency and the Twelve regarding the selection of three new apostles in 1889—Bishop Whitney the most desired among them:
This afternoon attended a meeting of the apostles. . . . There was a long chat as to the parties that the brethren would like to fill the three places in the Quorum of the Apostles. Prest. Wilford Woodruff said that he would like all of the brethren to hand him a list of the names that they would like for the vacancies. The matter had been talked of at the last meeting and some of the brethren had handed him a list. I was away and had had no knowledge on the matter and had therefore not handed the list of those that I would like to the President. I said that the first man of all those that I knew that I would like to see a member of the Quorum was Orson F. Whitney if it was thought that he was sound in his doctrine and if there were no fears as to his keeping the Word of Wisdom, but on account of my having doubts in these regards I did not care to name him; at the same time if the word of the Lord came through the President that he was the man I should be very glad to accept him. . . . There were remarks made by a number of the brethren as to their knowledge of some of the ideas of Bro. Whitney. I am sure that he would have been the first choice of every man in the Apostles if there were not doubts as to how he kept the Word of Wisdom and as to the position that he took on a number of different doctrines. Jn. W. Taylor said that he had been to his band of horses to get a team and he picked out the two horses that he liked the best but he found that one of them had something the matter with its gamble joint and he therefore was under the necessity of taking another horse that did not please him so well. He said that in as much as there were men that we could select for Apostles that there was no questions in our minds as to their fitness that he did not think that we should think of taking a person that we were in the least doubt about. He said that his first choice was brother Whitney but he felt that he would prefer to take some one that he did not need to ask any questions about. He had turned his defective horse out for a year and hoped that he would be all right in that time, and in that case he could have the team he wanted. He felt that we had better wait awhile before selecting brother Whitney.
In 1898 Orson was hired as an Assistant Church Historian, positioning him to make a discovery relating to Charles Stayner’s revelations:
Today Bro. Dan Collett, my assistant in the office, turned over to me certain documents left by Bro. Charles W. Penrose, my predecessor, in this department, and which he (Collett) found some time ago under the cover of his typewriter on a shelf nearby. He did not know what they were at first, but reading a few lines disclosed the fact that they were the papers turned over by Bro. C. W. Stayner to President John Taylor at the time he was called [tried] before the High Council in 1882. Those papers are the revelations he claimed to have received in England. I sorted them and put them under lock and key for safe keeping, holding them subject to the demand of the General Authorities.
The first of these papers is dated Nov. 15, 1880 at about 4 pm, at 42 Islington, Liverpool [England]. 17 in all are dated in November; 9 in December; 16 in January 1881, and 9 in February of that year—51 in all. The last one is dated Feb. 17, 1881. A blessing by Elder C. W. Stayner upon Elder L. R. Martineau of date July 19, 1881, and a blessing by the same Elder upon his brother Arthur—the latter given at Salt Lake City June 6, 1882 (after C. Ws release from England) also certain letters by C. W. to Arthur written in England are likewise among these papers. Nothing mentioning reincarnation appears in the first revelation, but many great promises are made to C. W. S[tayner]., the recipient—one to the effect that he shall be a Prophet, Seer and Revelator to the Lord’s people.
I find that during this past year I have given to Bro. C. W. Stayner upwards of $2,000, in different amounts. I gave his widow Sister Mary $30 the day of his death. In all since my acquaintance with him, I have given him sums aggregating about $5,700 or nearer $6,000. (OFWD, December 31, 1899).
With his plans and strategies crumbling around him, Orson underwent serious soul-searching and reformation, and within two years he had renounced reincarnation and discontinued the prayer meetings. By the end of June, 1900, he had repented of his former views. On his birthday, July 1, 1900, he made his reformation official:
I also wrote this day the following letter:
Salt Lake City, Sunday July 1st, 1900
President Joseph F. Smith:
Dear Brother Joseph:
This is my birthday (I am forty-five years old); and I wish to signify it by turning over a new leaf in the book of my life. I have pondered and prayed much over the matter of the written statement that I made to you in May 1898, the subject of which need not now be mentioned. That statement I wish to withdraw. I have banished the subject from my mind. I no longer believe as I did, and I wish that nothing shall remain to perpetuate the matter either in my own memory or others. While I do not admit that my faith in the Gospel and my loyalty to the Priesthood have ever wavered—for I know that they have not—I do acknowledge that I have been mistaken, honestly mistaken in certain things, and I desire to rectify that mistake. Will you help me?
Believing you to be my friend, and one of my best friends I have on earth, I feel that you will do for me all that one dear brother would and should do for another.
O. F. Whitney
(OFWD, July 1, 1900)
For a few weeks Orson heard nothing in response and therefore sought out President Smith:
Today I met Pres. Joseph F. Smith as he was driving away from the President’s Office. He leaves for Mexico tonight. He apologized for not having answered my letter of July 1st regarding the written statement of May 1898. He said he felt well about it and glad to have me take that ground, and said he had read the statement as well as the letter to Pres. Cannon. When I asked him what Pres. Cannon thought he replied “I wish you would have a talk with him about it.” I asked if my sincerity was doubted by Pres. Cannon. “No; only he seems to think it will be difficult for you to overcome your impressions in relation to these things.” I answered: “I think it will be difficult for Bro. Cannon to overcome his feelings about me.” He half smiled and I added “This is my position. I have come to the conclusion that it was impossible for me to be right and all the Brethren (the Authorities) wrong upon any point, and this is the ground I surrender upon. If this doesn’t satisfy Bro. Cannon I cannot help it; that’s the best I can do.”
He gave me “Goodbye and God bless you,” and we parted. He said he had not seen Pres. Snow as he was sick. (OFWD, July 27, 1900).
Nothing more is known for certain of what President Cannon thought about the matter of Bishop Whitney’s repentance. Being in feeble health, he died less than a year later in California in 1901. President Snow died six months after that in October of 1901. When President Joseph F. Smith became the President of the Church, he called his son Hyrum M. Smith to fill the open vacancy in the Twelve. Later, in April 1906, three vacancies opened in the Quorum of the Twelve, resulting from the death of Elder Marriner W. Merrill, and the resignations of John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley over plural marriage matters.
It was at this time that Bishop Whitney received a telephone message asking him to meet with President Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “I went down to the President’s Office, on my way to the Tabernacle, and had a private interview with President Lyman and Apostle John Henry Smith in the rear office. I was asked about my health, my faith and feelings, and answered the questions satisfactorily, I suppose, and was then told that I might be wanted tomorrow” (OFWD, April 6, 1906). Passing an interview with President Francis M. Lyman was a triumph for Whitney, since Lyman had long known of his former reincarnation views and been an opponent of them. The next day, Whitney’s life changed: “Attended the morning Conference Meeting; after which, met by appointment at the Historian’s Office, with President F. M. Lyman and Apostles John Henry Smith and George A. Smith (his son). Elders George F. Richards, of Tooele, and David O. McKay, of Ogden, were also there (in President Lund’s room). We were told by President Lyman that we three—Elders Richards, McKay and myself—had been chosen to fill three vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve. . . . He went on to tell us what would be required of us; asked for and received from each of us our views and feelings; and then enjoined us to strict secrecy regarding the whole matter, until it should be made public in a proper way” (OFWD, April 7, 1906).
Two days later Orson F. Whitney was ordained an Apostle and set apart as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Later that evening, at a social gathering attended by the General Authorities, President Joseph F. Smith spoke to those assembled: “Among the good things said of me were from President Joseph F. Smith, who assured me and all present that the Lord accepted of me; that past clouds were all dispelled, and I was wanted in the position to which I had been called. (He had told the Priesthood Meeting that I was one of the [illegible] and most faithful men in the Church, and had rendered the cause valiant service as poet, orator and historian, as well as Bishop.) He said at President Winder’s, that he had for years wanted me in the Quorum of the Twelve” (OFWD, April 9, 1906; emphasis added). No further entries in Elder Whitney’s diary after this date can be reasonably interpreted to refer to reincarnation issues.
What can be said of the claims to divine knowledge and rarified revelations, of angelic visitations and seeric visions, made by Whitney, the Stayners, and others of their secret prayer group? I must stand with President Cannon and conclude they were not of God; such is how I (and today’s prophets and apostles) also view the claims of the Snufferite movement—it is definitely not of God. Those who join are in serious jeopardy of losing their membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and also their eternal life, or exaltation, in the Celestial Kingdom of God.
Mormon doctrine, as taught and approved by the First Presidency and Twelve during and after Whitney’s lifetime, denounced and rejected reincarnation as completely false. President Joseph F. Smith received a revelation shortly before his own death in 1918, commonly called the “revelation on the redemption of the dead” that contained wording antithetical to reincarnation or multiple probation theories. Speaking of the resurrection, the revelation said: “Their sleeping dust was to be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spirit and the body to be united never again to be divided, that they might receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 138:17; emphasis added).
Elder Whitney was present in Council with his Brethren of the Twelve when this revelation was read to them and he, along with the others, sustained it fully. Then, in 1924, He prepared an article for the European LDS periodical that he himself had edited decades before, The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, in which he wrote:
The theory of reincarnation as held by many speculative philosophers is repudiated by this Church. The doctrine of the resurrection as taught by all the prophets of God, ancient and modern, is against it. The revelations are definite and conclusive that to “every seed is his own body” in the restoration. We are to receive the same body as that possessed by each of us in this estate. “This mortal is to put on immortality; to have one body quickened by spirit, not many bodies.” We are to subdue this tabernacle under the celestial law that we may be “quickened by the celestial glory and receive the same, even a fulness.” As Christ received His own body again, made immortal, so we are to have our own bodies, made like unto His glorious body, that we may be one with Him, and regain the Father’s presence and society.
Some have argued that in his doctrinal-poetry book Elias: An Epic of the Ages, which he began writing about the same time that he wrote his July 1, 1900 letter to Joseph F. Smith, Elder Whitney hinted that he still entertained a belief in reincarnation. Such conclusions are based on poetically imprecise language found in Elias that is capable of more than one interpretation. In light of the above private and public repudiations, such interpretive gymnastics seem unjustifiably stretched and unwarranted.
Elder Orson F. Whitney served for twenty-six years as a distinguished and influential Apostle of the Lord. During President Joseph F. Smith’s administration, he ghost-wrote a number of articles and official statements signed and published by the First Presidency; he enjoyed the complete confidence and loyalty of his friend and prophet-leader.
Elders Whitney and B. H. Roberts were similar in some ways. They were self-taught, unusually talented, believing and faithful; giants of thought, oratory, and the printed word—yet they also had to overcome serious personal issues that placed them at odds with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve until they repented. Both men were so gifted and influential that their leaders viewed them as tremendous assets to the Church—not to be lost without a fight. Each was rescued after a soul-trying struggle; each became powerful advocates for good the rest of their lives. Neither Roberts’ political views nor Whitney’s reincarnation views defined them. Instead they were and are known as literary and oratorical giants and thinkers of their time, equal to any contemporary church leader in their influence for good and reputation as faithful servants of God.
Elder Orson F. Whitney died in 1931 of pneumonia, shortly after publishing his autobiography Through Memory’s Halls, which contains no mention of his former reincarnation odyssey or allegiance to Charles W. Stayner.
President Joseph F. Smith wrote about vague and unreliable doctrinal connections to Joseph Smith in an Improvement Era editorial: “We fear that many things that are reported as coming from the Prophet Joseph, and other early elders in the church, by not being carefully recorded or told with strict regard for accuracy, have lost something of their value as historical data, and unwarranted additions have sometimes been made to the original facts, until it is difficult to determine just how far some of the traditions which have come to us may be accepted as reliable representations of what was said or what was done. Let those who feel impressed to make a record of facts, as they become acquainted with them, do so; but let them exercise the greatest care in obtaining accuracy of statement and in giving the authority for the statements they record” (“Shall We Record Testimony,” Improvement Era 1:5 [March 1898], 372). The Prophet Joseph Smith is on record as having declared reincarnation, or the transmigration of souls, as a doctrine of the devil. See History of the Church 2:304-07. It is not known whether Whitney knew of this incident in Church history.